Maria Cristina Vlassidis
BOSTON — Dressed in a white flowing robe and donning the traditional Sikh turban and long beard, Bhai Resham Singh, the leader of a Sikh gurdwara in the Boston area, stands before some 1,500 Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and even atheists. “(We) ask for mercy on the soul of Wade Michael Page, the perpetrator of the massacre,” he says.
Though this prayer vigil is taking place in a very Christian space — summer evening light illuminates the Trinity Church’s stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible — the service is an education on Sikh worship and beliefs. Non-Sikh participants cover their heads with orange scarves to demonstrate unity with their fellow Sikh worshippers, who wear head coverings to show respect to God.
It’s been only a few weeks since the mass shooting at a Sikh house of worship in Oak Creek, Wis., and feelings are still raw as Singh explains that the major tenet of Sikhism is a belief in the equality of all humans, united as children of God. Sikhs, therefore, don’t just pray for their own communities. “We ask for blessings upon all mankind,” he says.
And on this humid summer evening, this group of Sikhs puts its prayers where its beliefs are, offering prayers for fellow believers who were killed, police officers who risked their lives to end the bloodshed and even the attacker.
“That is the ethos of Sikhism,” Singh continues. “We absolutely believe that as we gather to pray for the souls of the innocents who died, it’s equally important for us to pray that those tormented with hate (who) brought us all together that they find peace as well.”
Singh’s prayer in Boston — perhaps surprising in its unwavering commitment to forgiveness — embodies one of the positive outcomes of the tragedy at Oak Creek. Americans are learning that Sikhism, perhaps more than other world faiths that preach some level of exclusivity, is radical in its inclusivity.
In this way, Sikhs also believe that their tradition is in sync with the American ideal of religious pluralism, a pluralism that insists on extending the understanding of the American community to include people of all faith traditions, and people of no faith at all. This means that Page’s act of violence, intended to harm, may in fact have strengthened the Sikh community by providing a platform for building understanding of its mission of tolerance.
Sikhism’s (most often pronounced “Sick”-ism) commitment to inclusivity comes directly out of its origins in the 15th-century Punjab region of India, an area rife with religious conflict among Hindus and Muslims. According to Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, in response to this religious turmoil, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, taught that in God’s eyes, “There is no Hindu and no Muslim, so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow the path of God.”
Today there are more than 24 million Sikhs (which means “learner” or “student”), making Sikhism the fifth largest world religion. While most still live in the Punjab, Sikhs are spread across every continent on the planet — there are even Sikh scientists who regularly visit Antarctica. There are around 500,000 Sikhs in the United States, mostly concentrated in the cities on America’s east and west coasts.
With its history of rejection of religious intolerance, it is perhaps surprising that Sikhism entered the American consciousness after the most dramatic act of religious hate in recent memory: the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Most men, along with many women, cover their uncut hair in a turban called the “dashteer.” It is this practice that led many Americans to confuse Sikhs with the turban-wearing Muslim fundamentalists behind the 9/11 attacks, making Sikhs targets of anti-Muslim backlash.
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